Texas Smells Like Summer Camp
Since living in Elgin, a town 40 miles east of Austin, Jim and I have been tending to a little garden and I am in love. The plot lies at the front of the house, adjacent to the road and shaded by a line of bushy trees. The entrance to the garden is through an iron-wrought fence that’s rusted quite prettily and is draped in grape ivy from one robust vine. The bunches of grapes are numerous. They feel velvety and cool to the touch and hang heavy with a beautiful weight to them.
I’ve never had a garden before so this has been a dream come true. Serendipitously, upon arrival at this new housesit, I uncovered a book within the shelves called The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson.
Recognizing the title from childhood, I began reading the story about a cold and disagreeable, overindulged child named Mary Lennox who is orphaned in India during times of cholera when it was a colony of the Queen. Sent to live with her wealthy and reclusive uncle in the moors of Britain, she learns of a “secret garden” on the sprawling estate and, naturally as a spoilt child, she wants what she can’t have and is drawn to it — This mysterious garden that’s closed off to the world.
Stepping into my own not-so-secret but equally enchanting garden in the blistering Texas sun, a far cry from the blustery moors of England, there is at its epicenter, a pair of charming fig trees, as lovely as a duet and brimming with miniature green figs. They are beautifully rendered in their infancy, as most things are, and I declare them, “So cute!”
When they ripen, they swell full of juice and yumminess and I pluck them when stretch marks appear on their little bottoms.
At the base of one tree is a vine of purple morning glories that’s caught the fancy of the cool shade and has coiled its way up and around the tree branches, becoming entwined and as one, a beautiful entanglement. Every time I see it, a joyful feeling of deep appreciation bubbles up inside me at the visually appealing marriage of two botanical beings, brought together by nature and everything being in the right place at the right time: a chance encounter nurtured by a mutual affinity.
Garden of Eden
Between the trees stands an enormous, chest-high, terracotta water bath filled with water lilies, algae, and squiggly fish that shimmer beneath the surface. Above the bath, a coy rubber snake aptly placed by a child meanders in the lower branches of the fig tree, recreating the fall of man at the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the birth of consciousness. And it is as if from this water vessel, the life of the garden flows outward, just as all known biological life starts at the molecule built of two hydrogen atoms bound to an oxygen.
Glass baubles bob on the surface of the water that is tinged green and laced with algae, through which the aquatic lilies reach up from the murky depths to the sun, their promising buds tightly closed, a special treasure for an exceptional time. When they bloom, they do so sequentially, only one bud at a time, and weeks apart, slowly and deliberately.
When one blooms, the petals are a brilliant magenta and lanceolate-shaped, inviting one to bury one’s nose into its heart. I gladly oblige, taking a deep inhale that goes far into me, a penetrative satiation of the senses.
It smells like sweet, sweet comfort, almost bordering on the saccharine but it stays within a cul-de-sac of relatable mellowness. In a few days, the bloom passes, its petals slowly closing back in before withering back into the depths of the water, its stem and plume becoming mushy and fading in this latter phase of its life.
Some days later, weeks later, I notice another bud rising up out of the tenebrous depths again, the prow of its tight bud piercing the water, and, the cycle continues like the dramatically slow blinking of a star light-years away.
Next to the fig trees is a bed of sunflowers. They stand together, tall and straight, a platoon of soldiers saluting the sun. Their faces turn and say hello to the world with cheerful optimism and every morning I exercise on the front porch and nod a hello back to them.
When the baby chicks were around, they stayed in this bed pecking at their feet, shaded by their relaxed and open leaves from the hungry sun in the sky. Nowadays, the absence of the chicks presents a certain somber emptiness.
One of the flowers has become top heavy and leans over with exhaustion into the aisle between the beds so when I busy myself in the garden, I scoot around him like we are two people in a crowded hallway. Some days, I silently send a nod of solidarity, “I feel ya, buddy,“ glad I am not alone.
The bed of sunflowers also has bunches of yarrow growing in abundance and their lacy white blossoms wave prettily in the air. In early May, Jim had an inexplicable and acute outbreak of tiny, itchy boils on the backs of both his hands.
One day, they arrived in full force and quickly covered his hands within days. The skin was red hot and itchy, rough and scaly, and a clear pus lay dormant in the boils.
After an unrelenting week or so of increasing severity and subsequent concern and bewilderment, it was brought to my attention that yarrow had medicinal properties. So that day, I plucked a handful of yarrow from the garden and infused it into some melted shea butter, finishing it off with a strain through some cheesecloth to make an herbal salve. Within a few days of its topical application, the outbreak cleared up rapidly. It was amazing.
Now, his artist's hands are clean and clear; the skin of his hands supple, smooth, and healthy.
Folk wisdom and medicine from ago has been cropping up for me and I’m interested in learning more. Last summer, when I faceplanted off a long board onto the road, Jim’s dad had some calendula in olive oil that I applied religiously to the scrapes for more than a month. The facial scarring left behind from this accident is minimal considering the severity at the time.
By the sunflower and yarrow bed, grows a giant rosemary bush. The chicks used to roost under the shade of this bush, I surmise the smell of rosemary was tantalizing for them as well. This was also a great place for them to hide when it was time for bed so I used a staff to prod them out — a shepherdess of chicks.
The birds also liked to congregate near the compost heap lying at the northeast corner of the garden, scratching at the buffet of bugs while licking their proverbial chops, or whatever the avian equivalent might be.
Mango peels and melon rinds and discards of Jim’s homemade chai find their way back here eventually, digested by the teeming insects and microbes that scurry in and out of the folds of decaying food, busy with their cosmopolitan life in Bug City with its many networks and paths. I can almost hear the sizzle and see the heat waves of potential energy created in this furnace when Jim turns it over with the pitchfork.
Near the compost heap, along the fence to the east are various pantry beans we sprouted on our arrival and planted as an experiment. Jim has been teaching me basics of gardening and watching the life cycle of a plant from seed to fruition has been fascinating for this suburban girl to learn. Who knew that one can take a dried bean bought at the grocery store, keep it wet until it sprouts, then plant the sprouted seed, and beget a bean plant that buds bean pods — wow!
As I delve into the story of Mary Lennox and the secret garden, her curmudgeon-like character prone to fits, sulking, and cold and selfish behavior at the beginning of the story begins to change as she works every day in the garden.
Hands in the dirt and skin exposed to the cold wind of the wild moor, she comes alive and filled with a sense of magic and wonder about life. Her enthusiasm inspires her bed-ridden cousin, Colin, who is similarly irascible (as Mary once was) and resigned to a psychosomatic illness, thinking he is too sick to function.
The two of them discover something in the act of growing things that has them come to life, ruddy cheeked and bursting of energy.
Mary is used to being disliked and doesn’t know much about friendship. But through her interest in gardening, she makes friends with cheerful Dickson, who is friends with all the wild animals of the moor and teaches her how to plant seeds and water plants and weed the garden. He lets her in on a little secret about making friends with animals, “Anything will understand if you’re friends with it for sure, but you have to be friends for sure.” I can’t help but find myself learning along with Mary and feel myself healing along with her character in the story.
A year ago, when I quit my 9 to 5 job and my grad school program where I was learning to become a human calculator (M.S. in Business Analytics) I knew there was something not quite right with carrying on with life, business as usual. There was something missing for me and it wasn’t until I was fully in the journey that I got what was happening. That is to say, my experience is of a robot coming to life, a modern-day Pinocchio.
I am learning to love again, my heart is beating again, I am regaining my compassion, and learning to live life fully! Where once my heart was frozen, it is beating. Life-giving practices like gardening are a salve for the soul. Nurturing life nurtures one’s own life. One has to listen closely and hear. Brushing donkeys and feeding pigs and taking care of little animals and plants is lighting up my soul, creating currents and rivulets of love that run through my being, re-connecting me with a world that I’ve spent much of my life detached from.
Growth and Changes
One section of the fence is dedicated to mung beans, an Asian bean that looks like a little green pill. After soaking, the green skin comes off like a candy wrapper exposing a pale yellow flesh that one can soak and grind and mix with vegetables to make a delicious, savory pancake fritter. The mung beans took to the Texas heat well enough, as did the cannellini and black beans.
They sprouted up as sturdy little plants, flowered in about 4 weeks with blossoms that looked curiously bean shaped, and a week or so later, are now shooting out straight pods a few inches long like pistols. When some of the pods grew fat as paunchy little men, I pointed these out excitedly to Jim and we stripped them open. The flesh of a still-ripening bean is a minty cool shade of the palest green and tastes incredibly fresh — a delicate flavor of vegetables and wellness. A fresh, young bean is now one of my favorite tastes in the world! The rest of the pods we leave on the plant to allow the beans to mature and dry in their shell.
Every morning, my routine is the same. I spend some time writing in the early morning and at daybreak, I head outside to do my morning exercise on the front porch. This is followed up by feeding Bess the pig who oinks good morning, then spending some time in the garden watering, weeding, checking each plant’s progress, and harvesting anything that’s ready like the prolific tomatoes or the bed of greens: kale, mustard, and chard. The greens stand on end after a good storm, their bodies electrified to attention and the green of their skin is the greenest green you’ve ever seen.
It occurred to me, as I was kneeling between the rows of beans and watering the soil of each plant, the inherent magic of soil. The earth coated my hands like a balm, its effect was something I had never noticed before. I was reminded of a conversation two years ago when Jim and I spent an afternoon helping clear space for a community garden in Greenfield, Massachusetts. The other volunteers were mostly older women and one declared that getting your hands in the dirt is the only therapy a woman needs. I recall the strength with which she made this declaration — so fierce and with such great conviction it was clearly supported by her own experience and one that has been tested through trying times.
Back then, I didn’t quite grasp the full impact of her statement. The extent of my gardening had been weeding the garden beds when my mom was ambitious enough to plant tulip bulbs. What I recall most vividly is screaming shrilly at freshly dug up earthworms wriggling shiny, naked, and pink while running away, the trowel in my hand clattering onto the walkway. While I was no princess or stranger to getting some dirt on me, I was not a fan of wormy things that slithered on legless ambition, nor did I find dirt to be anything other than what its namesake declares — “dirty”. It was something inert that soiled my clothes and must be washed off well with soap and water.
But, as I and Mary Lennox were learning, dirt and earth is this magical composition, a live matrix in which other things come alive. It offers a structure, a material, a medium for life, for something to grow.
In the story, they call this potent power that creates life, Magic. Mary’s cousin, Colin, becomes strong and healthy from daily workings in the garden and shares his thoughts about it in the following passage.
“When Mary found this garden it looked quite dead … then something began pushing things out of the soil and making things out of nothing. One day things weren’t there and another they were …”
It’s the same way with people. Where does this vitality, this drive, come from that inflates us full of life and energy? What is this intangible essence that I feel so present in the air out here on 43 acres of Texas prairie land where the sun shines searing hot and the scent of the air is wild? It’s the spark. You know which one I’m talking about.
Before I started my journey, I was dormant, asleep, and unconscious. With each step of the journey, I feel myself coming alive. With the opportunity for tending to a garden and taking care of animals, my heart is opening up more and more, my connection with life is increasing in fidelity, and my capacity to love and be loved is growing.
“I keep saying to myself, ‘What is it? What is it?’ It’s something. It can’t be nothing! I don’t know it’s name so I call it Magic … Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing. Everything is made out of Magic, leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people. So it must be all around us.” — Colin in The Secret Garden (p. 218)